Iraq’s unity must be preserved, says Parliament Speaker Jabouri

Speaker of the Iraqi Parliament Salim Al-Jabouri. (Reuters file)
Updated 08 October 2017
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Iraq’s unity must be preserved, says Parliament Speaker Jabouri

BAGHDAD: The speaker of Iraq’s central government met with Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani in Irbil on Sunday.
Iraq’s Kurdish region voted for independence in a symbolic but controversial referendum two weeks ago. Baghdad responded by banning international flights out of the region and threatening to suspend Kurdish representatives from the national parliament.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar Al-Abadi demanded the Kurdish self-government annul the results.
Turkey and Iran also threatened punitive measures against the Kurdish region, fearing Kurds in their own countries would renew their campaigns for self-rule.
In the meeting, Iraq’s Parliament Speaker Salim Jabouri and Barzani stressed the need to avoid tensions between the two sides, according to a Rudaw report quoting a statement from the Kurdistan presidency.
The passing of Iraq’s Kurdish former President Jalal Talabani, seen as a unifying figure in post-invasion Iraq, failed to reconcile the two sides. Al-Abadi skipped the funeral Thursday, held in the Kurdish city of Suleimaniyah. Talabani’s casket was draped in a Kurdish flag.
Jabouri and Barzani also reaffirmed the need to calm the political situation, taking the “principle of dialogue with an open agenda,” the statement read, adding that all sides have to take part in talks to seek a resolution for the problems between Irbil and Baghdad.
The Rudaw report quoted Hemin Hawrami, a senior assistant to President Barzani, as saying that Irbil informed Jabouri that the Kurdish government is ready for dialogue with Baghdad “without preconditions from any side in a defined time frame.”
A statement from the office of the Iraqi speaker said that his visit was to help rebuild the strained relations between Irbil and Baghdad that have reached a “dangerous” level to the point that regional countries have begun to interfere, something he said “threatens the security and stability of Iraq as a state.”
The speaker emphasized his position that the unity of Iraq should be preserved and his discussions with Barzani focused on how to find a way to “get over what happened, especially in the disputed areas.”


Iran-backed militias accused of reign of fear in Iraqi Basra

Updated 7 min 19 sec ago
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Iran-backed militias accused of reign of fear in Iraqi Basra

BASRA: Hajjar Youssif was on her daily commute to work, staring at her phone and flicking through her Instagram account when she looked up to find herself in an unusual location. The taxi driver had turned into an alley. When she questioned the driver, he sped up.
“I started to feel uneasy and knew that something bad was going to happen,” said the 24-year-old office administrator, who had taken part in protests over lack of clean water, frequent power cuts and soaring unemployment in her hometown of Basra, Iraq’s oil capital and main port.
She yelled and tried to open the door, but the driver had locked it. The taxi swerved into a courtyard where three masked men were waiting.
“They immediately told me, ‘We’ll teach you a lesson. Let it be a warning to other protesters’,” Youssif said in an interview several days after the incident.
The men slapped and beat her and pulled off her Islamic headscarf, she said. “At the end, they grabbed me by my hair and warned me not to take part in the protests before blindfolding me and dumping me on the streets,” she said, her cheeks still bruised.
Youssif believes the attack was part of what she and other activists describe as a campaign of intimidation and arbitrary detentions by powerful Iranian-backed Shiite militias and political groups that control Basra, a city of more than 2 million people in southern Iraq’s Shiite Muslim heartland.
Angry Basra residents have repeatedly taken to the streets in recent weeks to protest failing government services, including water contamination that sent thousands to hospitals.
Earlier this month, protests turned violent when demonstrators attacked and torched government offices, the headquarters of the Iranian-backed militias and the Iranian Consulate in Basra — in a show of anger over what many residents perceive as Iran’s outsized control over local affairs.
The events in Basra reflect the growing influence of the militias, which played a major role in retaking Iraqi territory from Daesh militants, who are Sunni Muslims.
Shortly after IS militants captured much of northern and western Iraq in 2014, tens of thousands of Shiite men answered a call-to-arms by the top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani.
Many volunteers were members of Iran-backed militias active since the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, while others formed new groups. These fighters are credited with helping government forces defeat the extremists. But during the war, the militiamen were also accused by Sunnis and rights groups of abuses against the Sunni community, including killings, torture and destruction of homes.
Buoyed by victory against IS, some of the most feared Shiite militias took part in the May national elections and their list — Fatah — won 48 seats in the 329-seat Parliament.
Fatah and other factions formed a wider Iran-backed coalition in Parliament earlier this month and will likely be tasked with forming the new government.
In Basra, some alleged the militias were working with local authorities to quell the protests — a charge denied by Bassem Al-Khafaji, head of Sayyed Al-Shuhada, one of several Basra militias.
He said threats and intimidation of protesters were “individual acts,” but not the result of a central directive.
“Our order for all the factions in Basra ... is not to confront the protesters who burned down the offices of the militias,” Al-Khafaji said, arguing that the militias are trying to prevent more bloodshed.
He accused infiltrators of turning the protests violent and said the alleged saboteurs must be dealt with by the security agencies.
Some militia leaders in Basra accused protesters of colluding with the US, which has long worked to curb Iranian influence in Iraq.
A local leader of a prominent militia vowed to retaliate.
“We have pictures of those who burned down our headquarters and they will pay dearly,” he said on condition of anonymity in line with his group’s rules for speaking to the media. “We will not let them attack us again and if they do we’ll open fire. That’s what we’ve agreed on, all of us.”
The government has said protesters’ demands are legitimate, but claims infiltrators were behind the violence.
A senior official in the Interior Ministry’s intelligence service said dozens have been arrested since the protests began. He acknowledged that others may be held by political parties and their militias, but said his office has no way of tracking that. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.